REVIEW: Bacurau (2019)

In Brazil’s near-future, the tiny village of Bacurau finds itself closed off from the outside world. It no longer appears on any online maps, mobile phones cannot get any signal, and it is running out of food and water. It then falls under attack from a strike team of foreign white supremacists, led by a mysterious German sniper (Udo Kier).

Bacurau, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, is an arresting blend of action, western, thriller, comedy, and just an edge of science fiction. It also weaves through no small amount of political commentary. Since the beginning of 2019 Brazil has been led by extreme conservative President Jair Bolsonaro, and some of his more egregious comments and policies do feel broadly reflected here. It even comes with an untrustworthy politician of its own: local mayor Tony Jr (Thardelly Lima), who weakly attempts to curry favour with locals by donating out-of-date food to the community and giving rotting used books to the local school library. This political edge seems well in keeping with Filho’s past work. His previous film – the exceptional drama Aquarius – present a retired journalist making a stand against a relentless property company. The scope here is wider – a small town maintaining tradition against their government – but the struggle at its heart remains the same.

The entry point into the narrative is Teresa (Barbara Colen), a woman returning home to Bacurau for the first time in a long while to attend her grandmother’s funeral. It does not take long for the film to develop a broad ensemble cast of colourful eccentrics. Teresa seems more grounded than most, and the film gains much depth in forming a relationship between her and a reluctant former gangster named Pacote (played with a low-level burning passion by Thomas Aquino). It is a surprisingly long film, given its content, but the length does supply plenty of time to expand upon and illuminate the various characters. Lunga (Silvero Pereira) is one stand-out: an angry rebel hiding with a gang just out of town, and waging a war with the mayor over water shortages. Sonia Braga, who collaborated with Filho on Aquarius, re-teams here to play an ill-tempered alcoholic town doctor. She makes a strong and lasting impression – as does Udo Kier in typical cult film mode.

The film feels very much a pastiche, with visual and tonal debts owed to John Carpenter, Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, and in turn Alejandro Jodorowsky’s personal brand of psychadelic western. This fairly aggressive blend gives the film a distinctive pulp feel that is going to endear it to fans of this kind of bloody, aggressive violent entertainment, but likely turn off viewers seeking more realistic filmmaking. The film’s casual, leisurely structure certainly favours eccentricity over suspense. It takes a lengthy amount of time to really get moving into its main narrative, and yet it introduces the film’s antagonistists much earlier than one might expect. It gives time to ridicule them a little, and presents them less as terrifying killers so much an emotionally broken and slightly silly psychopaths.

There is always space on the screen for this kind of distinctive cinema. It successfully balances black humour with well-shot scenes of violent action. Its cast are all well committed to its satirical tone. It reflects many older works of filmmaking, yet balances them in such a way as to create something new. It feels wonderfully original, and left me keen to see what will come next from the seemingly versatile and outspoken minds of its directors.

Bacurau has been playing at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2019. For more information, click here.

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